Having read about the Mishkan for several weeks now, including its instructions and preparations, we must imagine the emotions Moshe experienced before he actually put it together. First, of course, he has experienced a direct commandment from G-d: During the day time in the first month, on the first of the month, you will set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting (40:2). On its own, this must have been overwhelming. We can imagine that being directly charged in this manner might rob him of his sleep; how could he do anything else once the first day arrived?
Of course, we are also not discussing a rush job. Moshe was to put the finishing touches on months of instruction and work that would culminate in the only way that G-d would agree to dwell amidst the Children of Israel. Moshe must have acted with extreme care and caution, ensuring no small detail was overlooked in the preparation or the actual set up. After all, the Mishkan is detail-oriented because the Creator of the universe wills it that way; nothing less than perfection will do.
And so, he began. First, he set up the walls and coverings, establishing the outer structure of the Mishkan (v. 17-19).
He brought in the holy Shulchan, the table, set up the shelves for the showbread, and placed the showbread on it; he brought in the Menorah and lit its lamps; he brought in the golden alter and lit the incense offering; he put the large Altar in its place outside of the tent and offered sacrifices; he placed the Kiyor basin between the altar and tent and he, along with Aharon and Aharon’s sons, washed his hands. (22-33).
In each of these cases, Moshe Rabbeinu first puts the vessel in its spot, sets it up, and then performs the requisite action or ritual involved.
The only exception to this rule is the Aron Kodesh which serves as the heart of the Mishkan. Here, we read:
“And he took the (tablets of) testimony and placed them in the ark. And he put the poles upon the ark, and he put the cover of the ark above it. And he brought the ark into the Mishkan…” (20-21).
Only here do we find a keli, a vessel for use in the Mishkan, which was assembled completely and then brought inside. Why did he not first bring in the ark and then place the luchot within it?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains:
“The answer… is based on the fact that the holy Ark did not gain its status until the Tablets were placed inside; until that point, it was nothing more than an empty receptacle… (T)he Ark could not be placed in the Mishkan until it had this status. In contrast, each of the other items in the Mishkan gained their status as soon as they were made, and as a result Moses would have them placed inside the Mishkan before they were actually used.” (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Sefer Shemos, p. 347)
Indeed, every vessel or item is only prepared once it has its final piece, a concept we know well from the prohibition to complete labors on Shabbat. The finishing touch often makes things what they are, transforming them, as this box was transformed into the home of the holy Tablets and the meeting place of G-d and man.
It is tantalizing to consider how we might apply this idea to ourselves and to our work. In our work, this is perhaps less complicated. We have projects that require completion, emails that require finishing touches, contracts and agreements which are not done until they are really done.
With people and personalities, however, it is a little different. On the one hand, G-d breathed life into us, garnishing us with His image; yet, we know very well that we are not complete, that even if we were to act perfectly well for the rest of the day or the rest of the year, we would still not be complete as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. We could always do more for our employers and employees, children and friends, parents and fellow shul members and citizens. There is no final moment of completion, a moment perfectly akin to Moshe placing holy Tablets into a lifeless box and transforming it. There is no hidden and final key that, if we just place it and turn it, would make everything whole.
We have very different work when it comes to ourselves. When it comes to our character, our relationship with people and with G-d, the ideas we have and those we do not yet have, there is so much to do. And, remarkably, it is almost always small, defying the notion that there ought to be something tremendous and earth shattering that we might complete. Instead, we are commanded to smile at others and greet them kindly, to respond to others with patience and think well of their motives, to concentrate for a few lines of the Shema and Shemoneh Esrei, to learn one more line of Mishnah or Chumash, to call one more sick person, to cook one more item for a new mother. Everything before us is small, no act is final, until we run out of time. And yet, it is these small moments that transform us, as Moshe once transformed the ark. They are our very human version of placing the Torah inside of ourselves, of making ourselves so much more complete.